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A letter from an alumnus about Professor Robert Roswell Palmer

October 9, 2002
Your brief mention of the death of R.R. Palmer contains several inaccuracies. You mention his "high school" textbook "that was widely used as a high school textbook for years."

The book is used to this day and is now in its eighth edition and published by McGraw Hill. A second inaccuracy — it is used at both the high schooljmd college level.

I understand it is so well considered that it has been translated into Chinese among other languages.

Professor Palmer was given very short shrift in our magazine. He deserves a feature article. A full article would note the number of prestigious historical works he penned during his long life lifetime, that he taught at Yale as well as at Washington University and Princeton, that he was the recipient of the Bancroft Prize in 1959, that he was past president of the American Historical Association, and upon his retirement in 1977, he was afrdiated with the Institute for Advanced Study. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

As a former student of his, I think the PAW can do better than what you provided in the September issue.

Peter F.C. Armstrong '50
Honolulu, Hawaii

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September 20, 2002

Robert Roswell "R.R." Palmer was one of the most distinguished historians of Europe Princeton ever had on its roster. Those of us who studied under him knew him as a shy man of great generosity who was an exemplary gentleman and scholar. His work on the period of the French Revolution opened up many new perspectives in a field somewhat dead with the pall of conventional thinking.

Since he was a liberal and a proponent of the French Revolution we affectionately referred to him as Robespierre, since he did share that French leader's moral rectitude and cool pseudo-Calvinistic or northern self-assurance, but certainly not his fanaticism or self-righteousness. Despite being a liberal, Palmer was generous with students of other views and was singularly sympathetic to the Catholics in the revolutionary drama, something not often found on the Left. He also popularized for Americans the work of Georges Lefebvre, a Marxist historian of great ability and encyclopedic knowledge. Palmer was no Marxist, and he challenged certain leftist French assumptions sufficiently for real French Marxists to call his great work The Age of the Democratic Revolution the "Nato" interpretation of the French Revolution.

His textbook, The History of the Modern World, was probably one of the most successful textbooks ever in the field of history, both in pedagogic and in financial terms. It is also an unintentional witness to the decline of the American mind, for sometime in the 1970s or 1980s it ceased being widely used in college history survey courses because students had come to find it too difficult. Palmer's book had not changed; the intelligence, diligence, and ambitions of American college students had changed in a downward direction. If we could get college students today to read and understand it something truly of value would be achieved. 

I have often liked to say, only half facetiously, to my students and others that when I was at Princeton it was still a little bit Calvinistic in a general way. Now it is more Marxist. I have never been able quite to say which was better or worse! How would Robert Palmer have felt? I suspect he would have preferred the aroma of Calvinism more than the brimstone of the Marxists.

Norman Ravitch *62
Savannah, Ga.
Professor, Emeritus,
University of California

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